Slowhand: An Appreciation

I’ve recently taken to saying that the Beatles got me interested in playing guitar and that Eric Clapton has kept me interested.

The Beatles entered the world’s consciousness in 1962 (or 1963, depending on who you talk to).  I was a kid living in Bangkok, Thailand when my musical world changed.  I can honestly claim that I saw the Beatles, but not in concert.  They were on an Asian tour and stopped briefly in Thailand.  They never got off the plane, but were still greeted at the airport by adoring throngs.  And I was among them.  They came to the door and waved at us.

By the mid-1960s, when I was in high school, the Beatles were continuing to top the music charts, and I had grown tired and frustrated playing piano according to my parents’ wishes (and NOT playing the music I wanted to play).  My friend RIck Johnson had an old Sears Kay guitar he never played, so I bought it from him for ten dollars.  It was a horrible guitar, with a warped neck, but I didn’t care.  Buying songbooks from the local record store, I learned current tunes using the chord charts.  I confess to being self-taught, and every error in fingering styles, posture and playing is mine.

In college, I bought my first new guitar at the Post Exchange (PX) in Munich, Germany.  It was a twelve-string acoustic made by Framus (the company’s history may be worth another post, but not today).  I don’t know why I got a twelve string, except that I think I was angling to the top-of-the-line guitar in my price range.  I took that guitar with me to college, and played with other students in jam sessions, and even wrote a couple of songs with it.  I still have that guitar today.  It’s 50 years old!

Framus 12-string guitar

My first new guitar – now 50 years old. Framus 12-string

In 1970, the Beatles as a band came to an end.  Their legacy remains alive, but other than bootlegs and mashups, no new music from the Beatles was forthcoming.

At the same time, the British rock-and-blues scene was exploding.  Leading the charge was a fiery guitarist named Eric Clapton.  It seems everything associated with Clapton turned to gold.  He played with the Yardbirds (a group who spawned fellow guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) and then with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and then lit up the world with the first “supergroup,” the power trio, Cream.

Many a day and night were spent listening to Cream albums, Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire, and Goodbye come to mind.

From Cream, Eric moved onto Blind Faith, who only released one album, but it still has a place in rock history.  Not just because of its original cover (which was “banned” and replaced).

I partially drifted away from listening to Clapton’s work after Derek and the Dominoes, which some people think is his greatest album.  But he kept showing up on the airwaves, and I saw him in concert in 1974 at what was then known as the Capital Centre.  He was promoting his first truly “solo” album then, 461 Ocean Boulevard.

I have albums and songbooks of Clapton’s music, and I’ve read about some of the tribulations he’s gone through, and lately, with the COVID-19 affecting everybody everywhere, I was pleased to learn that Eric had released a new album.

Motivated by the COVID cancellation of a Royal Albert Hall concert, Clapton decided to take his band (consisting of standout bassist Nathan East, keyboardist Chris Stainton and percussionist Steve Gadd) and set up in a country estate in West Sussex, England.  Recorded live, The Lady In The Balcony (reference to his wife Melia, who watched), the album is 17 tracks, 14 of which are acoustic (the other three are electrified but not the typical hall-filling power chords).  Many of these are Clapton classics, some are tributes, and all of them sound to me as if Eric and Co. had invited me to sit in the living room while they played.

Call me a fan!  I saw a few videos (I think there’s a DVD of the album) on YouTube and immediately said to myself, “I have got to get this album!”  Fortunately it was approaching Christmas so I dropped a not-too-subtle hint to my daughter, and lo and behold, I now have my own copy.

Coinciding with my recent venture into live performing, I’ve locked into this album’s rendition of Bell Bottom Blues (you can see it here) .  The song itself isn’t hard — I learned it quickly — but I’m just fascinated by the solo Eric plays, and I’m obsessing over learning it.  It’s hard trying to visualize it from the video, so I’m basically taking it measure by measure, lining up the sound with what he’s playing.  I’m no Eric Clapton, and since he’s the only three-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and winner of some 18 Grammy awards, I never will be.  But I’m grateful that Eric Clapton has blessed the world with some outstanding music, and kept my interest in playing guitar alive.

Postscript:  Some people who aren’t as old as I am may not be familiar with Eric Clapton’s guitar playing skills.  Here is a video of a much younger Clapton demonstrating some of his chops.


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